Elgin American

Preface: I am by no means an expert on vintage compacts. I’m more of a somewhat obsessed research geek who likes sharing what I uncover in the hopes of enticing fellow geeks into conversation. Come on, curious compact lovers. Geek out with me. As much as people love mystery, I think sometimes the more you learn about something the more interesting that thing becomes. For me, that’s definitely the case with compacts.

On to the goods on Elgin. The Elgin Area Historical Society reports that the Illinois Watch Case Co. established the Elgin American Novelty Co. as a subsidiary in 1898. Elgin initially made jewelry and lockets.  According to the EAHS website, “In 1923 Elgin American entered the ladies’ compact field with a patented ‘powder box.'”

An early Elgin box

An early Elgin American box with a great deco design. Photo (c) Jenn Waltner 2012.

Elgin American Co. sponsored the first two and a half seasons of Groucho Marx’s radio quiz show You Bet Your Life. Between 1947 to 1950, radio advertising had a powerful impact–Roselyn Gerson’s book Vintage Ladies’ Compacts  claims the show had to go off the air a few weeks early, as Elgin had sold through its entire inventory. Side note: Gerson’s book features many vintage ads, including at least 18 for Elgin compacts.

Elgin heart

One of Elgin’s popular heart compacts. Photo (c) Jenn Waltner 2012.

In the mid 1940s, Elgin introduced a line of heart-shaped compacts, cleverly sending distributors special Valentine’s Day promotional materials. The most elaborate case features love-birds hovering over a heart inscribed, “Give me your answer do!”  obviously targeting gentleman buyers planning a marriage proposal. Other cases bear cupids, hearts, flowers, and “I love you” engraved in multiple languages.  In her Overview of American Compacts, Laura Mueller writes, “Elgin hit the jackpot with this case design and occasional ad campaigns.” These sentimental pieces are easy to find and a great starting point for any collection.

Elgin made a number of gorgeous compacts, vanity cases and carryalls. A search right now on ebay for “elgin compact” yields 288 results, ranging from simple goldtone compacts to the elaborate Salvador Dali-designed “bird in hand” case. Leaping gazelles, elaborate enamelled souvenirs, mother-of-pearl and bejewelled beauties, dance cases with tango chains… Elgin made them all. Most vintage women would be hard-pressed not to find something in the Elgin catalog that speaks to them.

Elgin American compact

A compact pictured in Elgin’s 1949 ads

Copy from a 1949 ad in Harper’s Bazaar describes a new line this way: Definitely different… They’re here, the “originals” in compact shapes you’ve been wanting. Distinctive in every exquisite detail, these Elgin Americans have the contour allure, the exclusive edge edge on fashion so essential to that “yours alone” look.

While Elgin made compacts for the masses, the company recognized that women wanted their own personal style. So they offered designs to suit a wide range of tastes and budgets. Elgin produced and marketed compacts under a variety of names: Elgin American, EAM, American Beauty, and Clarice Jane. The Clarice Jane cases are smaller and somewhat more ornate–these are some of my favorites.

Elgin vanity case

An Elgin vanity case. Photo (c) Jenn Waltner 2012.

Look for more discussion about the Dali “Bird in Hand” compact and Elgin’s carryalls in future posts, along with photos of some Elgin favorites from my collection.

Got Elgin facts you’d like to add? By all means, comment. Compact geeks of the world, unite.

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12 comments

  1. I have an Elgin American comoact that was my great grandmothers then passed down to me.Its never been used but I am just curious to know its value. I can send a pic of it to you if you think you mite can help me..Thank You,Rebecca

  2. I’m interested in knowing a little more about the Elgin heart compact you have shown here (the one with “I Love You” in different languages). Do you know when this particular design was produced?

  3. I have a powder compact with I think what you would call Shakespeare faces or a drama motif. Any information you can give me would be wonderful. It is somewhat heart shaped with a red case. Thanks.

  4. I have an elgin American compact I searched google images rare elgin American compact and I found the one that looks like mine mine is very used the site it took me to said they were selling a new one for 18$ is that really what mine is worth I thought it would be worth more..

    1. A lot of things impact value – you say that your compact is very used, which would make it less valuable than a compact in good or new condition. Also, internet searches are rarely reliable indicators of an item’s rarity. Unscrupulous sellers often mark things as “rare” to try to entice people into paying more. Elgin produced a huge volume of compacts, making them less rare than many other manufacturers.

  5. I have an Elgin American “Made in Canada” contoured clamshell design floral etched gold tone compact that is still nearly full of loose powder, mirror attached (no spotting), puff present in good condition, no screen but have been unable to find ANY info on who in Canada may have manufactured for Elgin. Have you ever come across a Cdn manufacturer that produced for Elgin or was Elgin ever present in Canada? Thank you!

  6. I think a lot of women use compacts today, if not for the powder, than for the glamorous effect of using the mirror. I put 20 of them out in my shop two weeks ago and only four remain. Many women are still interested, collecting and using. Thank you for your research.

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